This interview is taken from the collection of the Combating Terrorism Archive Project (CTAP).1 On 22 January 2015, Dr. Doug Borer sat down with Dr. Michael Noonan of the Foreign Policy Research Institute to talk about Noonan's experiences as a member of a military transition team in Iraq's Tal Afar district and his career as a scholar in the field of counterterrorism.2
DOUG BORER: Mike, please begin by telling us about your military service in Iraq.
MICHAEL NOONAN: I received a reserve commission through ROTC3 and graduated from the University of Scranton in 1993. While I was in graduate school at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, I served with 1st Squadron, 322nd Cavalry Regiment, 5th Cavalry Training Brigade. When I completed my coursework and my exams, I moved to Philadelphia and worked at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) from 1995 to 1997, while continuing to serve with other reserve units. In 1997 I went back to graduate school, then started my coursework toward a doctorate in political science from Loyola University in Chicago. In 2000, after I finished my coursework, I returned to Philadelphia and FPRI. I went into the individual ready reserve and then found another training unit in Philadelphia.
That was the unit I was in when I was mobilized in 2006. I was sitting at my desk working when I received a phone call from our operations noncommissioned officer (NCO) telling me that I had been mobilized and had a week to report to Fort Hood. I was assigned to a Military Transition Team (MiTT) and trained at North Fort Hood from May until late June 2006. We were among the last teams that went through this kind of training at Fort Hood before the program was moved to Fort Riley, Kansas. Most of the training focused on individual-level skills, communications, weapons, and other such things. At the time, there was very scant training for those who had advisory duties. Our team was set up a little bit differently from most. There were four majors, and I and another guy were assigned as the two captains on the team. The teams were mostly a hybrid of reservists and active duty soldiers, but some other teams had National Guard members. We had three active duty soldiers on the team: a fire support officer, a forward observer NCO [13F military occupational specialty], and our medic.
At the end of June, we deployed to Kuwait, where we did about two weeks of training, getting acclimatized to the desert, zeroing our rifles, that sort of thing. We were then in Baghdad for a day or two before going to the Phoenix Academy in Taji, which is a kind of counterinsurgency school. There we familiarized ourselves with the electronic warfare systems that we would use for our vehicles and some of the communications gear, and learned more about Iraqi culture and how the Iraqi Army was set up. From there we deployed up to Tal Afar. We were working with 1st Battalion, 1st Brigade, 3rd Iraqi Army Division, and our unit was located about six kilometers [five miles] outside of Tal Afar at a place called Fort Tal Afar, along the Mosul-Sinjar Highway—Route Santa Fe
in American military parlance. Our battalion's area of operation reached from the northeastern section of the city up toward the Syrian border and then down along the oil pipeline road. Ours was the third team that had been embedded with the battalion. This was about a year after the Battle of Tal Afar, when the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and other units went and cleared out insurgents from the city.
Tal Afar sits in a saddle between two ridgelines of what's called the Sheikh Ibrahim mountain range. The city itself, which has a large Ottoman castle in the center, was a waypoint on an historic trade route that ran through the region. That part of the country is a very interesting ethnic region. It's largely a mix of Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen—ethnic Turks, both Sunni and Shi'a. [Former Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein had relocated a large number of former soldiers of Turkmen background along the Mosul-Sinjar Highway in the northern part of the city to help bolster his control over that key line of communication from Mosul to Sinjar. We had heard that in the late 1980s and 1990s there started to be more Salafist-inspired Sunni influence there, and it was part of Saddam's plan to use Islam as a way to help bolster his regime.4
The battalion we worked with was an infantry battalion in the Iraqi Army. About a third of it was ethnic Kurds, many of whom had been seconded from the peshmerga.5 Up in the north, all of the division and brigade commanders were Kurds, and most, although not all, of the battalion commanders were Kurdish officers as well. The battalion commander whom we worked with was a Kurdish officer, who has since left the Iraqi Army and is now back with the peshmerga. A very bold and effective commander, he would use a large proportion of the battalion to go out on operations, everyone down to clerks and cooks. If they needed combat power, he would basically send everybody out.
Our mission was several-fold. Our primary mission was to help the Iraqi battalion improve its staff operations. Other transition teams had already worked on the basic rifle marksmanship and those kinds of things, so we were trying to
help the Iraqis with operations, logistics, personnel matters, and intelligence. I was the headquarters services company advisor, but a lot of my work was also dealing with personnel issues such as pay, promotions, and so on. I had no previous experience working in these areas, so not only did I have to self-teach myself about the Iraqis' personnel issues, but I also had to deal with personnel issues for the team itself—pay, promotions, awards, and such things. The team also went out as a coalition liaison element when the Iraqis were conducting operations that were larger than company-sized, or we would go out on operations with the battalion commander to provide close air support or medical evacuation if needed.
The battalion itself was fairly active in the area. The team that we replaced had taken some casualties during the Battle of Tal Afar, and so they hadn't gone out with the battalion in a while. When we showed up there, we had a lot of work to do, and our team chief decided that we would go out a lot with the Iraqis to see what they were doing. We also would do things for the coalition units in the area. If there were suspected IEDs, we would go out, and if we confirmed that there were devices out there, we'd call back for explosive ordnance disposal support. There were other coalition units with us when we first got there, but eventually they went away. We were alone with the Iraqi battalion for a period of about six months before the battalion moved up to the Al Kisik Military Base (AKMB), about 20 kilometers away from our location.
BORER: Did you move with it?
NOONAN: We eventually moved up to AKMB, but that was at the very end of our tour, in late May or early June 2007, before we redeployed back to the United States. Our replacements came in at that time, and we worked with them, telling them about the peculiarities of the Iraqi battalion. The Iraqi battalion system is kind of interesting because a quarter of the battalion may be on leave at any time. The battalion was 30 percent Kurds, about 20 percent Sunni Arabs, with some Yezidis and other groups also mixed in, and about half of the battalion were Shi'a from the south. So personnel going home on leave would be gone about a week, because it would take them a couple of days to get down south, especially if they were from Basra. This caused another problem, because the battalion commander would be gone for a week to 10 days every month as well, and while he was a very good and effective officer, his XO [executive officer], who took command in his absence, was not. The XO was a Shi'a officer from Diyala Province, who was politically very well connected in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. He had the worst combination of characteristics: a coward in the field and a bully in garrison. He was very old school. He believed in the practices of the former Iraqi Army [before the 2003 invasion], and we had a lot of issues with him. We reported up the MiTT chain of command all of the time about how he was not really fit to be a commander, but nothing changed.
BORER: Can you give an example? For instance, did you witness routine corruption? When you say he was a bully, was there a clear profit motive for him?
NOONAN: The XO would use the euphemism "to use power" on someone, which meant that he was going to beat up a person. We stopped him a few times when we found out that he was abusing prisoners, but he would just wait until he thought we weren't around to do his bullying. For another example, the Iraqi power grid was very spotty, so we would have maybe one or two hours of electricity a day, but there was also a diesel generator available. Our team had our own little generators to keep our tactical operations center (TOC) going, so our radios and other equipment would work when the power went down, but we didn't have lights or anything extra. This officer had it set up so that his section of the officers' quarters always had power no matter what time of day it was. It got very cold up there in the north, but his section was all lit up no matter what the conditions were, while the rest of the battalion was in the dark and in the cold. Some of the local Iraqis jokingly referred to this section as "the Green Zone"—a reference to the walled-off American-controlled district in Baghdad.
BORER: Earlier you mentioned your on-the-job training. Did you think that situation put you at a disadvantage, or were you and your fellow team members able to quickly figure out what you needed to do? Did you always have a sense of "We're not really sure what we're doing"?
NOONAN: I think it depended a lot on the individuals. I tried to help out as much as I could, and I think we made some progress on some things, but I think a lot of it depended on each person's level of comfort dealing with the Iraqis. There were certainly people on my team who weren't very comfortable working with the Iraqis and probably did the bare minimum job. I just happened to have a good relationship with my counterpart and with the other people in the personnel section, so that is where I focused a lot of my time. The medic and some of the other communications guys worked with the headquarters services company elements, which were about a seven-platoon structure. Our medic worked with the Iraqi medical platoon a lot. We also had a Navy corpsman with us. Because the battalion didn't have a surgeon or a nurse or a doctor to work with him, he would prescribe medication and deal with medical issues. So yes, I think it was a very individual reaction.
BORER: What happened when you left Iraq and demobilized? You were an individual augmentee, so were you just shipped back to your regular life? Was it as if your time in Iraq was nothing more than an interesting experience? Or were you able to pass your knowledge along to another reserve unit back in the States?
(faces intentionally blurred).
NOONAN: My cohort were the last reservists who went through North Fort Hood for predeployment training. The Army changed to a different system after that, using mainly active duty personnel. So the people who replaced us were active duty personnel who were either asked to serve on a MiTT or were "volun-told" to report for that duty. There was no real screening for this type of duty. It all came down to fit of personality and willingness to work with Iraqis. I have taken some umbrage over the years with people who criticized the reservists and others who were sent to Iraq. It's not like we had a choice in the matter. I think most of us tried to do the best we could in the situation—our team, for example, lived with our Iraqi counterparts the whole time. Particularly when active duty officers would say, "Well, you weren't the right guys for the job," it felt like a slap in the face, because there were always opportunities for those officers to volunteer to serve on a transition team and they chose not to do so. The MiTT was seen as a dead-end posting for the average career-competitive active duty officer.
BORER: When you say that you lived with the Iraqis, do you mean that you were in the same housing and shared the same chow [meal] lines? You mean you were always reliant on the Iraqis and they relied on you, in an integrated fashion?
NOONAN: Yes, we lived in the same fort. When the last coalition unit left our location, the squadron commander in the area had some workers put up a few steel gates to provide extra security for the long L-shaped corridor where we lived. We would keep the gates open during the day, but at night we would lock up, as an added force protection measure. The Iraqi Army is a strange duck, because it has a very heavy British influence, but it also has these peculiar Soviet traditions. For instance, much like in the British Army, there is a big social distance between officers and enlisted personnel, but the battalion allowed our NCOs to eat in the Iraqi officers' chow hall. We would go down there to get, if nothing else, some cucumber, tomato, and onion salad and some chicken. We always joked, "What was for dinner tonight?" because it was either rice and chicken or chicken and rice, but it was good, and better than eating MREs6 or other packaged things. I think the fact that we didn't hold ourselves above our Iraqi counterparts and ate meals with them helped build rapport as well. During Ramadan, we would sometimes share Iftar [the evening meal] with them, or if there was a holiday or similar thing we would share a big celebration dinner with the Iraqis.
BORER: Have you been able to or had an interest in maintaining a connection with any of the people you served with, either Americans from the South Carolina unit or any Iraqis?
NOONAN: Yes, I have kept in touch with some guys who were on the team and also with my Iraqi counterparts, particularly on Facebook. It was a very depressing period for me last summer, when I was seeing the places where I had been on the news. This was during the big ISIS offensive up in Nineveh and other places. ISIS is basically a direct outgrowth of al Qaeda in Iraq, and there were some Iraqis who perpetrated some terrible, terrible events when we were there. There was a big bombing in the southern market of Tal Afar in March 2007 that indiscriminately killed more than 120 people just because they were Shi'a and therefore, apostates to al Qaeda in Iraq. So it was disheartening to see that these militants were on the march there. I have kept in touch with my counterpart, who is still in the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish former battalion commander who rejoined the peshmerga. He was active in helping recapture the Mosul dam from ISIS. And I have kept in touch with our interpreters. One of them has immigrated to the United States, and I have been able to keep in touch through Facebook with another guy who was my favorite interpreter and is still in Iraq.
BORER: Do you have any understanding of the reasons for the collapse of the Iraqi forces in the face of ISIS? When I hear that Americans are going back to train and equip Iraqis today, I wonder whether the secret of their collapse is that they had poor training and equipment, or was it because of corruption. Did your connections give you any explanation?
NOONAN: I think one of the big problems that arose after coalition forces left Iraq is that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki tried to "coup-proof" himself by asserting the dominance of the Shi'a narrative in Iraq. Unlike in the north, where for political reasons there were a lot of seconded peshmerga officers in command positions, Maliki put politically connected or politically safe commanders in charge of the Iraqi Army units. When you look at the correlation of forces between Iraqi and ISIS numbers up in the north, the Iraqi Army should have been able to stand on its own against ISIS. The Iraqi forces had numerical superiority. But too many of these officers were chosen for their political acumen or connections rather than their tactical abilities. So when push came to shove, and the Iraqi security forces saw these 1,000 fanatics in pickup trucks and armored vehicles coming at them, they decided to leave. If you are a jundi [enlisted soldier] from Basra and you see your commanders leaving, there is not really a lot of incentive for you to stick around and hold the ground.
In a couple of cases, Iraqi soldiers tried to put on civilian clothes and quietly exfiltrate, but the ISIS fighters found and killed them, purely on the grounds that the Iraqi forces were apostate Shi'a and therefore weren't really Muslims. This led to a kind of rolling collapse throughout the country, and then the Kurds decided that they were going to take Kirkuk, which had long been an objective of theirs.7 If Iraq were to dissolve as a viable political entity, then the Kurds want Kirkuk's oil to sustain their own economic future. We can hope that the new Iraqi government is taking a longer view with regard to how it treats its Sunni and Kurdish citizens, but it's still a very messy situation. Obviously, the United States is trying to help out as much as it can in Iraq, but the Iranians are also on the ground there and have their own interests and considerations with regard to Iraq. Unfortunately, I think the outcome is going to depend on what modus vivendi can be struck to satisfy as many interests as possible and try to keep the country together. Or everyone may just decide at a certain point that Iraq is going to fall apart.
BORER: Do you think that the Iranian influence in Iraq may actually be in parallel with American interests? Or, do you think that they are another issue of contention?
NOONAN: I think that sometimes interests will align and sometimes they will be contentious. One way to look at the situation is to say that the Iranians gained great influence in Iraq after coalition forces left and Maliki basically handed the keys over to the Iranians. There are reports, for instance, that Qasem Suleimani, the Quds Force commander, was able to get a lot of money through the Iraqi government for his international activities, such as support for the Assad regime in Syria, or Hezbollah and Hamas.8 At the same time, because the Iranians were so involved in Iraq, they share responsibility for the problem with ISIS. So, on the one hand I think Iran's involvement hurt our interests in Iraq, but on the other hand it burdens the Iranians with being responsible for the outcome.
I think Iran and the United States definitely have an alignment of interests concerning the dangers of ISIS—it's just a matter of what can be made from that, and whether the two sides can strike some kind of modus vivendi or whether things continue to get worse. The whole situation in Syria and Iraq could create further regional instability. There have already been some incidents along the Saudi border, and if the contagion of ISIS and the radical takfiri view spreads, then things could get a lot worse very rapidly, especially in places like Bahrain and in the eastern oilfield region where a lot of Shi'a Arabs live. There could be some real problems in the future.
BORER: Mike, I would like to take you back now, to when you reentered the world of the United States. What happened then?
NOONAN: When our replacements arrived, I was able to train up my replacement early on, and then I went to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Sykes on the western outskirts of Tal Afar. I stayed there for about five days, which allowed me a little bit of time to decompress. There wasn't much at FOB Sykes, but it also was not a place like Mosul, where there were a lot of indirect fire attacks. On one of the scarier days I spent in Iraq, I was in Mosul when part of FOB Diamondback, which was the airfield in Mosul, was hit by 26 82 mm mortar rounds within about a 20-minute timespan. FOB Sykes never really took indirect fire, so going there gave us a little bit of time to relax. After that we went to Kuwait for a couple of days, and then we went back to Fort Hood. But when we got to Fort Hood, our demobilization became a very rushed process. I think we reached Fort Hood on a Tuesday afternoon, and the people there told us we had to get out and go home by Friday. They also told us that we were still under General Order Number 1, so we weren't supposed to drink alcohol. I think a lot of that was just "CYA" on the part of the people who were administering the demobilization station there.
BORER: What's CYA?
NOONAN: "Cover your ass."
NOONAN: We were at Fort Hood for a few days, and then on Friday we were told, basically, "Here is your plane ticket, get out." So I went from being in a war zone 10 days or even less prior to being back home. I had about three weeks of accrued leave. My wife was working at an immigration law firm at the time, and it was a very busy season so she couldn't take time off. When I first got back, however, my employer gave me another two weeks of paid vacation, thank goodness. Although I didn't see a lot of action in Iraq, I did see some, so it took some time to get used to doing simple things like driving without worrying about litter on the street, without scanning for IEDs. I lived in South Philadelphia at the time, which was a very built-up area, so it took a while for me to shut off the impulse to scan every rooftop when I was walking down the street, or react to loud noises and other things. My wife would go to work, and I would just kind of chill out during the day until she came home. It was good in that sense to have time alone—me and my cats just hanging out, watching baseball and drinking beer.
In the fall of 2007, after going back to work at FPRI, I wrote a piece in the journal The American Interest called "The Business We've Chosen." 9 The title is a famous line from the movie The Godfather: Part II, in which the characters Hyman Roth and Michael Corleone are talking about some people who had been killed.10 Roth tells Corleone, "This is the business we've chosen." Don't take things too personally, it's just business.
The hard part for me wasn't that the business I had chosen was to go to Iraq; the hard part was that the business I had chosen for my career was to work at a think tank. So when I came back to work, I felt as though I were in a fishbowl: everybody was constantly asking me, "What's happening in Iraq, what's going on there?" The battalion I was tactically embedded with operated in a pretty small battlespace in terms of the overall war, and we tended to look at things "through a soda straw": we were seeing only what was happening in our own area. I didn't have enough information at the time to "zoom out" and see the bigger picture of the war. The article "The Business We've Chosen" was really about me and about what it was like to work at a think tank, where it is our job to focus on such events, while I was still coming to grips with what I had just experienced.
We held a conference at FPRI a few years ago at which a military historian, Robert Mackey, talked about the post–Civil War era in the United States, and about Confederate guerillas who couldn't return home again after the war because they were too psychologically damaged to function in peacetime civil society. A lot of these exiled former soldiers, like Cole Younger, turned into outlaws in the Wild West.11 I think this is what we are seeing now, with this third flow of foreign fighters. This problem goes back to the Afghan-Soviet war (1978–1989), when the veterans of that conflict went to places like Algeria, Egypt, Chechnya, Dagestan, and the former Yugoslavia and started militant groups such as Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.12 Wars and insurgencies produced these veterans, who then went and asserted themselves in these other places and mostly made things worse. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars that began after 9/11 drew these veterans in, and now the foreign fighters in Syria are a much bigger problem than we have ever seen before.
No matter how any given conflict turns out, once the fighting's over, there will be veterans who go to other places and take advantage of security problems there, whether it be in nations in the original conflict region or back in the United States and Canada, or in Western Europe. We have seen this with the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket in Paris and the killings at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.13 Now we are also seeing a reassertion of great power politics in places like Ukraine, where Russia was able to foster subversion in historically orthodox and pro-Russian sections of the country. The United States has enduring interests with regard to China as well, but Washington is in a period of budget sequestration and is finishing up two big wars that cost a lot of money. So there are debates within American politics about what role the United States should play in the world. The solution to US foreign policy problems is not always going to be 140,000 troops—sometimes it is going to be something much smaller.
All of these issues came together for me as I looked at things like civil-military relations, especially in an irregular warfare environment where military objectives aren't necessarily in the lead but usually play a supporting role to the political, social, and economic issues that are the primary tactical considerations on the ground in such conflicts. I think that the skills the US military hones in the special operations forces—particularly on the special warfare side in the Army Special Forces, Civil Affairs, and Psychological Operations, and some selected forces in the other services—and the need to work with and through host nation governments and security forces, are aspects of military operations that are going to be with us for a long time to come. My experiences working with host nation forces in Iraq got me interested in the whole topic of advisors and their role in the national security strategy of the United States.
BORER: Right. We know that very few of our current decision makers, at least in the United States, have military service experience. From your understanding, do US leaders know about this resource: the advisory teams and special operators who can go into a country and essentially project US interests and power with a very, very small footprint?
NOONAN: I think they have some knowledge about it, but I also worry about these big headline things like the Abbottabad raid and the Maersk Alabama takedown.14 US direct-action forces are the best in the world at what they do, but even though these kind of direct-action tactical engagements, such as the raid that got Osama bin Laden, might have strategic or operational impact, they are not always going to be the right tool to use. If politicians become too enamored with such a tool they may use it places where it causes more problems than it solves. We now have a big security problem in Yemen, where Houthi tribal fighters have taken over the presidential palace, and where there is also al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. I think we focused too much on the direct-action portion of targeting and the use of drone strikes and such things. We spent our time mowing the lawn in Yemen, so to speak, rather than building up the gardening skills and the landscaping skills that would have allowed the host nation leaders to deal with these problems themselves. And then we take it upon ourselves to be a raiding force that goes in there.
A former Department of Defense official talked the other day about how Yemen highlights a kind of poverty of thought in the US administration's policy, which seems to rely on SOF and drone strikes as an antidote to some of these security issues. Drones and special operations might not have been the right tools to have on the ground there. The administration might have assumed that targeting and other kinetic actions were more valuable than building Yemen's infrastructure and helping it to develop the indigenous capability to provide its own security. If the United States relied less on military force alone, it could then focus more on the other country's social and economic needs, and build the host nation's institutions and forces that might be better for dealing with the problems on the ground. What was always interesting about working with the Iraqis was how innovative and creative they could be with what, to us, were inferior materials. The result wouldn't be up to our standards, but it was "Iraqi good enough." Sometimes you need to accept suboptimal solutions because they are what the locals can sustain, something that works for them in their culture, and within their resource constraints. You don't need a Ferrari all the time. A Kia or a Yugo might be just as effective for other people's needs, even if it might not be as flashy or high-performance as what you can bring to the table.
BORER: Mike, I would like to finish this interview with what I call the "king for the day" question. If you were king for the day and could make one or two instrumental, long-term structural changes to US forces, what would you do?
NOONAN: I would stand up a joint special warfare command that was coequal to Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and bring in a lot of rank horsepower and resources. If people think about SOF having two parts, surgical strike and special warfare, I think that the current command, resourcing, and rank structures encourage a degree of structural imbalance that might lead some people to favor JSOC and a more direct-action approach. This is not always appropriate for the jobs at hand. I don't mean to take anything away from those special operations guys—they are phenomenal at what they do. But at the same time, we need to think about special warfare and working with and through host-nation governments to deal with some of these security issues.
Such a policy will, first of all, lead to less dependence on the United States and second, allow us to work with the host nation to achieve regional objectives so that US forces don't have to be the guarantor of last resort or have to get involved in large overseas engagements. Such a joint special warfare command structure would enable the United States to work with other governments so that they could deal with their own security interests in their own region. I think that developing a command that was coequal to JSOC would be a way of developing future leaders at Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and other places. As you know, Army Special Forces are the largest force provider in SOCOM, but there has never been a career Special Forces officer serving as the commander of SOCOM. Not to say that the position always has to have a career SF officer, but I think that this is a force structure problem that puts the special warfare–oriented SOF at a relative disadvantage to JSOC within the overall SOCOM system.
BORER: Thank you very much, Mike.
NOONAN: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.